Flowers for the fields of Ukraine

Posted 5/22/10

In 2003, Sam Jonas traveled to Zurawno, a small village in western Ukraine. It was the first time the Centennial man had been there, but he felt a …

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Flowers for the fields of Ukraine


In 2003, Sam Jonas traveled to Zurawno, a small village in western Ukraine. It was the first time the Centennial man had been there, but he felt a bittersweet familiarity with the town’s dirt roads, Old World buildings and underlying dark history.

“It was a village that we’d heard stories about,” Jonas said of his trip to Zurawno with three family members. “Literally, I think I knew the name of this town before I actually knew the name of the town that I was living in as a small child.”

In a sense, Jonas had been to Zurawno many times. His paternal grandmother had grown up in the once quaint hamlet and would often tell her grandchildren what seemed like fanciful stories of “good kings” and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

That one could travel to near-mythic Zurawno never occurred to young Jonas. Even so, he somehow understood that there was more to this Eastern European village than deep forests, goat fields and youthful sailing trips along the Dniester River.

What a difference seven decades make.

The drab almost 19th-century desolation of present-day Zurawno spoke volumes of history when Jonas, his brother and two cousins first set foot in their ancestral hometown.

“Buildings on the main square are ramshackle compared to how they once looked,” Jonas said of his first impression. “Combined with the locals’ clothing, it bespeaks a hard life scratching out a living in an agricultural society on the decline. [If you look at] a photographic postcard from 1902, you can clearly see how prosperous the town once was.”

Jonas spent hours milling about town talking to locals, trying to piece together information about Zurawno’s war-torn history, the brutal Nazi occupation, and the vanished Jews and Poles who were once part of the village’s cultural vibrancy.

As a child, Jonas had heard hushed rumors that members of his Jewish family — including his great grandmother and her younger children — had been taken from their homes in Zurawno and shot by Nazis or their Ukrainian collaborators.

The horror began to seem more real as Jonas met aging neighbors who spoke of a mass shooting that had supposedly taken place somewhere across the river past the outskirts of town. Jonas followed their directions to a undistinguished plot of land that stood in sharp contrast to the alluvial fields and fertile croplands nearby.

“Right in the middle of an area that could easily be cultivated, there’s this patch of trees and bramble,” he said. “The land is uneven. It’s even sunken in some spots. The area corresponds to the spot where the local Ukrainians told us the Jewish residents were taken to and shot.”

The absence of even a single Jew in present-day Zurawno is a somber reminder of the Nazi “aktions” that devastated a once-thriving community 70 years ago.

The killing fields

Rural land that may be the site of a mass grave remains a disturbing reminder of the Holocaust. But paradoxically, the morass of fields outside Zurawno also offered a ray of hope to one father and son in October 1942.

At least two local Jews — and perhaps the only two — successfully evaded the Nazis for a year and half, with minimal help, in the fields, farms and trees that surrounded their native Zurawno.

Teenager Yosef Laufer and and his aging father, Kalman survived by virtue of their will to live and an unfailing knowledge of the landscape after jumping from a train bound for the Belzec extermination camp in Poland.

“Usually if you were just two people, you would escape to some larger group,” Jonas said. “People like this always got caught. But through wit, wisdom, courage and patience, this father and son lived in the open elements with virtually no help for 18 months.”

Jonas discovered the Laufers’ story only by chance after his trip to Zurawno. One of his cousins stumbled upon it while randomly searching the Internet for more information about the small Ukrainian town.

The Laufers’ ordeal labored in relative obscurity in a little-known book published only in Hebrew. The story had been told by Yosef — by then an 81-year-old baker living in suburban Tel Aviv — to Haim Tal, a writer and Holocaust survivor.

To Jonas, the odyssey of human survival was not just a story worth telling, but a way to send a larger message and pay tribute to his own ancestors, whose members likely knew some of the Laufer family in Zurawno.

In 2007, Jonas sold his electric-payments business to found Centennial-based Dallci Press, a publisher named for the first initials of Jonas’s paternal grandmother and her five siblings.

Dallci’s main purpose was to more widely distribute an English translation of Laufer’s story. Last year, Dallci published “The Fields of Ukraine: A 17-Year-Old’s Survival of Nazi Occupation.”

The harrowing story follows father and son as they make their way from barn to cave to forest, through ominous weather, scraping up whatever food and clothing they can find. After narrowly escaping death on several occasions, the two agree to stay together, no matter what, until the end of the war.

The pledge is put to the test several times, most memorably when the two are holed-up in an abandoned house that is about to be searched by Nazis. Kalman, who had just suffered a heart attack, tells his son to quickly flee while he stays hidden under the stairs.

Kalman reasoned that if the would-be captors saw one boy running into nearby woods, they would assume he was the only person who had been hiding in the house. Once the coast was clear, the father would join his son. Nazis seldom ventured into deep forests, which were known hiding places for armed partisans.

“The father in this story emerges as an amazingly smart man,” Jonas said of Kalman’s quick thinking. “As Yosef points out, he’s always willing to take the more difficult step.”

Bread of life

Yosef and Kalman survived the Holocaust — the only members of their immediate family to do so.

The elder Laufer — by then a broken man — died less than a year after the war. Yosef emigrated to Israel, where he married, had children, served in the War of Independence and worked as a baker for 50 years.

He aptly named his bakery business Bread of Life.

“He always missed eating fresh bread [while on the run], so he founded a bakery,” said Jonas who met Yosef in Tel Aviv shortly before his death last year at 85. “He was a gregarious individual, firm of grip. He laughed heartily, had a very bright face and twinkling eyes. A remarkable man.”

Although “The Fields of Ukraine” has now been published, Jonas has not stopped there. He is still collecting stories, maps and photographs of Zurawno for an online memorial book or what Jews call a “Yitzger book” in honor of the town and its Holocaust victims.

It is not only family history that has motivated Jonas to bring attention to Yosef and the ancestral village they both share. He says he has a much broader, more timely and universal message.

“Whether it’s Bosnia or Rwanda in the 1990s or Darfur today, you continue to have ethnic genocide being perpetrated on weaker peoples by political powers,” Jonas said. “When they say, ‘Never again,’ not only is is never again against the Jewish people, but never again on any innocent civilians.”


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